1911: An End of Two Millenia

Revolutionary writings and efforts by leaders such as Sun Yat-sen and Zou Rong played a key role in the end of Qing rule in China. By the early twentieth century, feudalism was on the verge of collapse. Years of humiliation and defeat at the hands of Western colonial powers and the Japanese, and a series of failed uprisings, set the stage for the end of the Qing dynasty. Two key events were seminal in this process.

In November 1908, Emperor Guangxu died of a mysterious ailment at age 37. A day later, Empress Dowager Cixi fell ill and died. Upon her deathbed, the empress chose her successor, the two-year-old Puyi, the nephew of Guangxu. From 1908 until Qing rule finally ended in 1912, Puyi ruled while surrounded by Qing officials who largely insulated him from the unrest and revolts that were occurring throughout China. In the absence of an effective ruler, revolutionary activity was able to grow and spread.

The second turning point was a bomb explosion on October 9, 1911. Revolutionary cells had spread throughout China and were largely comprised of radical young Chinese who had been educated in Japan and elsewhere. Their call “to avenge the national disgrace” (as they called it) and “to restore the Chinese” resonated throughout the land. 1

The bomb that exploded was being assembled by one such cell in the city of Wuchang. Qing authorities loyal to the empire moved in and tried to stop the spread of their revolutionary activities, executing those they could capture and hunting down others on the membership registries. Unless the alliance of revolutionary groups acted quickly against Qing authorities, their entire network and goal to overthrow the empire would be dismantled. When the bomb went off, the revolutionaries gained the upper hand.

The Manchu rulers were incapable of handling the crisis. The imperial government offered an appointment to Beiyang Army leader Yuan Shikai, the leader of one of the big regional armies in northern China, in the hope of stabilizing the unrest. As these events unfolded, Nationalist Party leader Sun Yat-sen was actually not in China but was fund-raising in the United States during the late months of 1911. In fact, he learned of the sequence of revolutionary events while on a train en route from Denver, Colorado, to Kansas City, Missouri. With three key provinces in China (Jiangsu, Sichuan, and Shandong) showing support for the revolution and the city of Nanjing falling to the rebels in early December, the Qing court began to see the end of their rule on the horizon.

Rather than continue to adhere to Qing orders of continuing to fight, several senior military officials from the north issued 12 demands to the Qing court in order to curb any further violence.2 These included:

Deny the emperor all rights of summary execution of criminals. Elect a premier ratified by the emperor.

Declare amnesty for all current political offenders held by the court.

Prevent members of the Manchu imperial clan from serving as future cabinet members.

Parliament will henceforth review all treaties before the emperor approves.

Within days of being issued, the Qing accepted these demands and the provisional national assembly elected Yuan Shikai premier of China on November 11, 1911. 3

By Christmas 1911, Nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen had returned to China. The Revolutionary Alliance’s widespread popularity had grown, as had support for Sun to become the leader of the new Chinese republic. Out of respect for his leadership, the Revolutionary Alliance elected Sun provisional president of the Chinese republic and he assumed office on January 1, 1912. Understanding that he lacked the full support of the military, Sun sent a telegram to Yuan Shikai on the same day stating that even though he accepted the presidency the office is waiting for you and I hope you accept the offer.4

In January 1912, several assassination attempts had been made against high ranking Manchu princes and generals, as well as Yuan Shikai, and four senior commanders of the Beiyang Army had sent a telegram urging the formation of a republic in China. With these final blows, Yuan was able to reach a settlement with Emperor Puyi and his family to abdicate in February 1912, in exchange for their financial security and safety Yuan also negotiated an accompanying edict that he would be granted full powers to organize a provisional republican government, establish national unity with Sun’s Revolutionary Alliance and be recognized him as the first official president of the new republic.

The Edict of Abdication was issued on February 12, 1912, and the provisional government in Nanjing agreed to The Articles of Favorable Treatment of the Great Qing Emperor after his Abdication. Yuan was sworn in as the first president of the Republic of China on March 10, 1912. Two hundred sixty-seven years of Qing rule had come to an end. As historian Jonathan Spence notes:

So, with a few simple words, the more than two millennia of China’s imperial history were brought to a close. And with almost no experience whatsoever in the arts and institutions of self-government, the Chinese people were presented with the option of devising their own future in a watchful and dangerous world.5

After the abdication Sun Yat-sen tasked fellow revolutionary Song Jiaroen to help organize for the upcoming elections for a national parliament that were to be held in February 1913. Song had helped Sun Yat-sen establish the Chinese Nationalist Party, drafted one of the provisional constitutions for the new republic, and was an outspoken critic of what he saw as Yuan Shikai’s increasing authoritarian rule. While the Nationalists Party did not win the overall majority, it had become the majority in the new parliament.

Then one of the first tragedies in a long period of tragic Chinese political change happened. On March 20, 1913, Song Jiaoren was shot by an assassin in the Shanghai train station and died very soon afterward.6 The assassination was a strong blow to the Nationalist Party and their hopes of the for attaining constitutional government in China.

By mid-summer 1913, Yuan Shikai, the militarist leader based in Beijing abolished parliament. By mid-fall Yuan declared martial law and instituted a military dictatorship dismantling the remaining republican institutions and became sole dictator. Recognizing his vulnerability, Sun Yat-sen fled to Japan in November 1913, one of the countries that had had an imperial presence in China, but also proved a safe haven for many Chinese nationalists at the time.

For the next several years, Yuan Shikai continued to assert his presidential authority by reorganizing provincial governments, increasing his control over military spending and foreign policy and attempting to revive many of the Qing religious observances and rituals. By the time of his death on June 5, 1916 Yuan Shikai’s power had eroded. China was now left without a recognized central authority and soon descended into a period where competing warlords in the provinces vied for political and military power.

From the mid-1850s to the beginning of World War I, many Western nations were expanding into Asia. The "Age of Imperialism" was fueled by the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the United States, and it profoundly influenced nation building efforts in Japan and China. As the desire to exert regional strength grew, Japan also began to expand its colonial influence across East Asia.


  • 1 : Edmund Fung, The Military Dimension of the Chinese Revolution (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1980), quoted in Spence, The Search for Modern China, 263.

  • 2 : The New Army was the modernized Chinese army corps established in December 1895 under the Hundred Days’ Reform. This was renamed the Beiyang Army in 1902 when Yuan Shikai was promoted to Minister of Beiyang.
  • 3 : Spence, The Search for Modern China, 265. 43 Ibid, p. 267.
  • 4 : Ibid, 267.
  • 5 : Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990), 268. For another perspective on the abdication see the reporting of the event by the New York Times

  • 6 : A later investigation found circumstantial links to the president’s office and Chinese historians conclude that Yuan engineered the assassination. Jonathan Lipman, Barbara Molony, Michael Robinson, eds., Modern East Asia: An Integrated History (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2011), 258.

Connection Questions

  1. What factors do you think led to the fall of the empire?

  2. Was the revolution successful? What criteria would you use to evaluate its success?

  3. After a revolution, what is necessary to prevent further chaos and violence? Based on what you’ve read, whose support do you think needed to be secured to stabilize China?

  4. How might the political changes within China have impacted the way foreigners viewed China?

  5. Canadian politician, historian and author Michael Ignatieff explains nationalism in his book Blood and Belonging: Journeys Into the New Nationalism. While distinguishing between civic and ethnic nationalism that has emerged in recent conflicts, Ignatieff begins his exploration by outlining the relationship between the political, cultural and moral ideals present in most nationalism movements:

    As a political doctrine, nationalism is the belief that the world’s peoples are divided into nations, and that each of these nations has the right of self-determination, either as self-governing units within nation-states or as nation-states on their own. As a cultural ideal, nationalism is the claim that while men and women have many identities, it is the nation that provides them with their primary form of belonging. As a moral ideal, nationalism is an ethic of heroic sacrifice, justifying the use of violence in the defense of one’s nation against enemies, internal or external. These claims -political, moral, and cultural- underwrite each other. The moral claim that nations are entitled to be defended by force or violence depends on the cultural claim that the needs they satisfy for security and belonging are uniquely important. The political idea that all peoples should struggle for nationhood depends upon the cultural claim that only nations can satisfy these needs. The cultural idea in turn underwrites the political claim that these needs cannot be satisfied without self-determination.1

    What characteristics of nationalism did China and Japan at the turn of the twentieth share with Michael Ignatieff’s definition of nationalism? What characteristics were distinctly different?


    • 1 : Michael Ignatieff, Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1993), 5.

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